Some of their voices have spoken for Wimborne Minster for more than 350 years, others for barely 50, but there is no doubt that the Minster’s collection of organ pipes is among the finest, most historically important of its size in the country. The earliest date from 1664 and were made by Robert Hayward of Bath as part of a commission to re-instate Wimborne’s parish church organ following the Restoration – an earlier instrument had probably fallen into disrepair, some time before the iconoclastic ordinance passed by Parliament in 1644 commanded the removal of all church organs.
Other pipework made by organ builder Brice Seede is from 1764 and still more comes from the 1840s and the 1890s. The organ itself – the console, soundboards, stops, pedals and casework – is mostly from 1965, the date of the instrument’s last major overhaul. The LCD display on the console is the most obvious sign of work carried out in 1986, when the organ’s range of pre-set combinations was expanded.
Its blend of electro-mechanics is all but unique. The keyboard action is electric, but some of its 3000 or so pipes and other mechanisms are operated by a system of treadles and wires that run beneath the floor from the console in the north choir aisle, where it has been since 1965, to the pipes housed behind the south stalls. The electrics exhibit the kind of idiosyncrasy that might be expected in an instrument of its vintage, some of the pipe metal is a little thin in places and the soldering is not all up to modern standards, but the Minster organist for the last 30 years, Sean Tucker, knows how to get the best from it. Just about.
‘It doesn’t give up its secrets easily,’ says Sean, sitting at the clean-lined light oak console with its fetching rosewood stop jambs and key cheeks. ‘I’m still finding out things I didn’t know about it. Even allowing for the not-so-good acoustics of the Minster, it’s lovely to play – there’s barely a half-second of reverberation and, remarkably, you can feel the power through the keyboard. It’s perfect for the Minster, which is not so much like a small cathedral as a large village church.’
Other than for a few years during the Interregnum, there has been an organ in the Minster at least since its earliest surviving records around 1408. There are only a handful of organs from that time in the world and the oldest examples in this country date from the early 18th century, making the Minster’s 1664 pipes particularly significant. ‘Those older organs have original casework and features, but we’ve just had a report completed and it turns out we have more older pipework than we thought,’ says Sean. The bulk of it is from 1965, when lighter, warmer, more baroque sounds were introduced to do away with some of the Edwardian “suet” – to be honest, we could do with some more roar and we’ve got to get it some trousers, which is organ-speak for gravitas. It needs a bottom end, desperately.’
It turns out that such attribution of human characteristics is commonplace in ‘organ-ic’ circles where pipes have ‘voices’ made by careful adjustment of their ‘mouths’, ‘ears’ and ‘tongues’. The Minster organ’s repertoire of character quirks is just as anthropomorphic – it can be as cantankerous as the best of us and is subject to all manner of aches and pains.
‘Our party horns stay under lock and key because they sound awful in the wrong hands,’ explains Sean. ‘I was once in Square Records when a visiting organist was playing and I could hear them clearly. They are locked away for Lent, come out for Easter, but are then locked away again when the weather warms up because the warmer air sends them out of tune so easily. The Positive Tremulant hasn’t worked for years and the man who maintains the organ used his last pedal mechanism to replace pedal number eight combination two years ago. In fact I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with the alignment of the pedals; I’ve played this organ for 30 years and they still feel weird.’
By day Sean teaches piano and composition at Poole Grammar School and Talbot Heath School, then plays for three choral services most Sundays as well as Friday night rehearsals. It is a 70-hour week, but the organ is invariably the ideal salve for any stress. ‘I can have had a really exacting day and arrive for practice absolutely exhausted, but within ten or fifteen minutes I can be lost in the music, just consumed by playing the organ.
‘There are things that need doing, but it’s really quite special.’
The organ is maintained partly by a bequest made by former Minster choirboy Edmund Barnes who once had to rely on a whip-round from his fellow choristers to buy shoes. He moved to London, trained as a teacher and became the first mayor of St Pancras in 1900, but he never forgot where he came from and on his death in 1926 created the fund that continues to provide for the Minster’s choir and organ.
The march of time takes its toll, though, and fundraising is underway for a major refurbishment that would take at least ten months to complete and could cost in excess of £600,000. The pot is half-full. ‘How many electrical appliances from the 1960s would we have in our homes that get used as much as this organ?’ asks Sean. ‘We need to upgrade to solid state because it is so much more reliable and we’d probably make a few changes to some of the stops to give us that roar at the bottom end that would make the sound more consistent.’
However, any suggestion that the organ could be replaced by digital technology is given short shrift. It quickly transpires that Sean regards electronic substitutes without affection. ‘Sample technology means you can have the sound of a cathedral organ and play it through speakers, but I’ve played Salisbury Cathedral organ often enough to know how it sounds and I’ve heard its sampled version. To me they are completely different. An electronic will never be the same – for one thing you’re not shifting the air in the same way. It’s in the surroundings as well, but there’s a physical presence about an organ that is absolutely central to its sound. The Minster is no place for an electronic toaster, it just isn’t. It needs a living, breathing instrument to dignify this ancient space.’
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine